Digital Paragraphs: Tabs or Carriage Returns?

green and black typewriter on brown wooden table
Photo by Ron Lach on

These days, I do all of my writing in plain text files using Obsidian. It is the first time since college that I have done all of my writing in a single place. Back in college that writing happened in Word for DOS 5.5, which is my favorite word processor of all time. Plain text files have lots of benefits, and I’ve written about those benefits elsewhere. Markdown allows me to include simple formatting within my files, just what I need without going overboard.

There is one thing about writing in plain text files that I miss, however: how paragraphs are designated.

In print media, paragraphs traditionally begin with an indented first line. Lines are separated by a single carriage return. Turn to a page of just about any book, magazine, or newspaper and you’ll know what I am talking about. Let’s call this the old paragraph style.

     Here is an example. This paragraph is indented by five space in the first line, and then wraps back to the left edge the way it would in a printed book or article. Any subsequent paragraph would also indent five spaces (or one "tab").
     Like this.

Text editors like Obsidian are not word processors. The latter is specifically designed for formatting text on a page. The former is a storage medium for text and formatting is incidental. I find it difficult, almost impractical, to use traditional paragraph formatting in a text editor. Instead, paragraphs are delimited by a double carriage return and no indentation on the first line. This convention has become standard for online media. This post, for instance, is formatted this way. Let’s call this the new paragraph style.

I was raised on the old paragraph style, and I’ve got to admit that I still prefer it to the new paragraph style. It strikes me as odd that two styles should have evolved for print and digital mediums. Words on a screen are no different than words on a printed page. Indeed, my Kindle uses the old paragraph style, even while most blogs use the new paragraph style.

Markdown-sensitive interpretters treat “tabs” as indentations for the entire block of text in question. If I try to use old paragraph style in Obsidian, for instance, the result is not a paragraph with the first line indented. It is a paragraph that is completely indented. I’m sure there are ways of using CSS styles to alter this behavior. But probably it isn’t worth it.

Consider that an old style paragraph uses a tab and a carriage return to delimit its start and end. A new style paragraph uses a double carriage return. If we assume that a carriage return is a single “newline” character then 2 characters are used to delimit a paragraph in either style.

Or is that true? A “tab” is a single character that ultimately represents n number of spaces, where n is fairly arbitrary. The debate between using tabs versus spaces is as heated in the developer world as the debate between one or two spaces after a sentence in the writer world. Is a tab a single character or is, say, five consecutive spaces. If the latter, then an old style paragraph takes up more “space” in a file than a new style paragraph.

I don’t know what got me thinking about this. I didn’t sleep well last night, and perhaps it was reading articles on my phone to pass the time that got me thinking about paragraphs. I like the look of old style paragraphs better than the look of new style paragraphs. There is a compactness about them that makes me think of lean, tight prose. But in the digital world of text editors like Obsidian, they are too much of a headache to worry about.

Written on April 22, 2022.

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One comment

  1. It’s funny, reminiscing about the personal history of typing or word processing. I started with a manual typewriter before high school, I miss that typewriter, but I know I would not miss it for long if I had it in my possession. Then in 85-86 I had the class that I probably used the most in this life, Keyboarding. Mrs. Botz. She was not a happy person. From her I learned to double-space after a period (also between the state and zip code when typing out an address, i.e. “Your Town, CA 90210). I am currently going back to college in my 50’s trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up and this double-tap after a period is noticed and corrected. So, correcting a 35 year old habit.
    Anyway, I am supposed to be writing about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch’s affect on our environment, sustainability, etc. (a manual typewriter would definitely aid my focus). Now I see plastic waste everywhere along with the shrinkage of our water supply here on the west coast (while listening to KNX, lol).


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